Randall Thompson: Symphony no. 2 in Em

performed by the New York Philharmonic under Leonard Bernstein, or below by the Detroit Symphony under Neeme Järvi

second part of the above video

It is based on no program either literary or spiritual. It is not cyclical. I wanted to write four contrasting movements, separate and distinct, which together should convey a sense of balance and completeness.

Randall Thompson, on his second symphony


[Thompson] has really succeeded in keeping the music simple, unforced, unaffected. He has made use of popular idioms, melodic and rhythmic, and his manipulation of these is civilized and craftsmanlike.

Olin Downes, New York Times


He has not hesitated at times to be obvious: he has not strained, he has not constricted his fancy and his feeling; he has not been afraid to sound quite different from Schoenberg. His music has humor, and warmth and pleasantness; many will find it agreeable and solacing.

Lawrence Gilman, New York Herald Tribune, Nov. 3, 1933

(cover image by Joshua Sortino)

This work is an absolute highlight of our series, and if you think Copland or Barber has a monopoly on an iconic American sound, let me introduce to you Randall Thompson.

Randall Thompson was born on April 21, 1899. His father was an English teacher. He attended the Lawrenceville School, and later Harvard, eventually earning his doctorate from Eastman. He taught at Curtis, the University of Virginia, and Harvard.

Thompson is known mostly for his choral music, but he wrote three symphonies, two string quartets, and an opera. His students included Leonard Bernstein, Samuel Adler, and Frederic Rzewski. Bernstein’s recording of this work is the one with which I am most famous, but you’ll notice from the comments on the above video that people feel quite torn about which of these is the ‘better’ recording, as Järvi’s brisker tempo gives the piece a slightly greater vibrance and intensity. He may not be as well known as the famous, flamboyant American maestro, but he has done very much to record works from lesser known American composers, as we have seen.

Thompson’s second symphony dates from 1931, just a year after yesterday’s Hanson, and is a taut, energetic, work, youthful and strong and full of passion. Apparently this kind of vivaciousness is common to the composer’s work. Robert Cummings says that this work has “the bright colors and naïve charm that any high-school chorister who has sung Thompson’s music will know.” The above comments that open the article also come from Neil Butterworth’s The American Symphony. Butterworth himself described the work as being “the archetypal American symphony of the 1930s and 40s, expertly crafted and deeply national in character without superficial jingoism,” and said it is “the complete antithesis of Sessions’ symphonic philosophy.” All these come from page 64 of that book.

As the others have commented, there’s not much complex about the music here, but it is still gripping. It’s straightforward without being bland or predicable. There is intense rhythmic interest, and the movement chugs along thrillingly. Under this muscular, youthful intensity, though, is a sort of freedom; it isn’t a hard, relentless work. Again, the YouTube comments discuss a convincing likeness to “Hello, My Baby” in the first movement. It just never gets boring. There’s brassy boldness, soft strings, warm winds, and I didn’t even mean for all of that to be alliterative. It’s full of color and excitement without being flashy or gaudy. I really love this first movement, and I’ll say Järvi’s faster tempo does justice to the first movement. There are darker moments where the music wanders, and even in these softer, more ethereal passages, his higher energy still does the music justice. It’s music for the edge of your seat, but not just thrills. It reveals itself as having compelling logic in the first movement.

The opening of the second movement reveals Thompson’s choral skills to those who may not know his music. It’s lyrically pristine, magnificently beautiful, but also very straightforward. It begins with strings, then muted trumpets, oboe… how can you resist? It’s pure nostalgia, cool and collected, sensual but not jazzy, wholly American. While there’s nothing challenging about this music, it’s clear that it’s 20th century. Maybe Järvi’s reading of this movement is a bit brisk; Bernstein gives it more room to breathe, but Järvi certainly isn’t rushing. It’s a brief little second movement, but such a gem, equally as vivid as the first movement in an entirely different way.

The only place I have issue with Järvi’s reading is in his nearly breakneck pace for the third movement. Bernstein’s slightly more deliberate tempo brings out the jazzy undertones to this scherzo-like third movement, although it is admittedly marked vivace. There are places where he still ends up being slower than Bernstein, and not in ways I’m fond of, so Bernstein wins this movement, if we decide to keep score. It has the same kind of bustling, almost wild energy and spirit as the first movement did, but again in yet another way, unlike Hanson’s three repetitive movements. There’s a quirky, dreamy trio section to this third movement, and I enjoy Järvi’s reading of it. Something about it sounds so unmistakably American, with almost comically chirpy dissonant interjections from winds among sumptuous, almost bluesy harmonies from strings. The bouncy, semi-jazzy scherzo-like theme returns to close out the movement quietly.

The finale again sounds like the choral composer coming through again, with a soft, lyrical, nostalgic opening to this wonderful finale. It’s as tender and wide-open-spaces as Dvorak’s second movement in the ‘New World’ symphony. This is, in Bernstein’s reading, the longest movement, and likely so for Järvi as well. Again, Bernstein’s slightly slower speed gives us a little more space to savor what Thompson is doing before the movement bounces to life with an optimistic, encouraging theme to which Järvi’s brisk reading does glorious justice.

Someone in the comments on YouTube makes a reference to “Buffalo Gals (Won’t You Come Out Tonight?)” and you absolutely cannot miss it:

I didn’t know anything of this song and was able to enjoy the music on its own merits, but what an extra dose of Americana this adds to this already very American symphony. It’s just genius.

There’s greater weight to this finale in some more heavily scored passages that keep it from being a light, fun thing. It has contrast; it’s playful, with tension and release, all the contrast you’d want, but upon completion of this very handsome final movement and the symphony as a whole, we realize that what unifies these “separate and distinct” contrasting movements is Thompson’s own voice, a particular style, in which these four different ideas fit together to make a very convincing, deeply satisfying whole. For such a compact work, the ending is truly epic.

This is undoubtedly one of the great highlights of the series. I’ve disparaged a few of the pieces in the series so far, but this one gets two thumbs up, or five stars, or whatever our grading system is. Don’t miss it. But also stay tuned for some more surprisingly excellent music. Thanks so much for reading.


2 thoughts on “Randall Thompson: Symphony no. 2 in Em

  1. This work is one of my favorites. I first heard it as a classical music DJ. Indeed, the final movement is a slow, majestic buildup clearly based on the opening measures of “Buffalo Gals” (won’t you come out tonight). This was used in patriotic radio programs years ago on network radio to accompany narration. Thompson also borrowed “Hello My Baby (my ragtime gal) earlier in the work. There are several big buildups in the work that were used as production music as well in old radio series. I recall them used in the “Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar” CBS radio series. So, this music “has legs” as they say in the biz. CHEERS!

  2. I was introduced to this piece in my American Music History course in my undergrad in 2013. By far, to this day, my favorite orchestral work – the 2nd and 4th movements are spectacular.

    I hope that this piece is brought into the Bernstein biopic, as this was such an important work to Bernstein growing as a musician, and paying homage to this piece in his “Young People’s Concert” series.

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